Four-legged support for victims navigating the criminal justice system

by Lauren Dowdle, content director

On a rough day, a wet kiss, furry snuggle, or simply looking into the dark brown eyes of a dog can be enough to turn it around. That extra support from a four-legged friend is especially important for victims going through traumatic experiences, which is what the HERO program looks to provide.

Tamara Martin oversees the HERO (help, empower, restore, overcome) program and is also the handler for one of the facility dogs, Willow. She worked in criminal justice for more than 35 years, seeing many difficult cases where the victims struggled and had their lives altered because of a crime. 

Willow, a cross between a golden retriever and Labrador, was the first facility dog in the HERO program.

People, especially children, who have been victims of a crime or have witnessed a violent crime are often traumatized. They might be reluctant to talk about the events, especially in front of a courtroom audience.

After doing some research, Martin wondered if these victims had been given the ability to cope and see themselves as survivors if that would have made a difference. She decided she wanted to find a way to help these victims navigate the criminal justice system, while creating a comfortable atmosphere for them.

“I wanted to start a program to give the victim extra support, a better foundation for recovery, and help overcoming what they had experienced,” Martin says.

So, in 2014, Martin and Willow got to work. As a result of what they were able to achieve, Alabama’s Office of Prosecution Services (OPS) submitted a grant application to the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) to fund the work of facility dogs and their handlers. 

Then in 2017, the Alabama Legislature recognized the importance of certified facility dogs, passing Willow’s Law, Senate Bill 273. The HERO program — also referred to as Alabama’s courthouse facility dog program — officially launched in the fall of 2018 and now includes 11 dogs.

The HERO program is a statewide program that provides service-trained facility dogs to victims or witnesses in need, with no charge to them. Each dog is accompanied by a handler with knowledge of the legal and criminal justice process.

Children open up and feel more comfortable as soon as the dogs arrive.

All of the dogs live with their handlers — including Martin’s dog, Willow, which is a cross between a golden retriever and Labrador. 

“She is really sweet, very quiet, and calm,” Martin says. “She’s just a good dog all around.”

Social agencies, law enforcement, or others in the system can reach out if there’s a child or adult who would benefit from a dog. Once a victim is paired with a dog, the dog accompanies them to forensic interviews, exams, therapy sessions, court hearings, or any place the dog is needed. The dog stays by their feet when they talk to the court or investigators about their painful experiences, providing a calming presence.

“The dog works with them the entire time they are going through the criminal justice process, and even after that, we make the dog available,” Martin says. “Some people get really attached to the dog, so they can come by and visit them after.”

The dogs know more than 40 specific commands and help mitigate stress and anxiety as victims navigate through the court system. They can close doors, pick up items, shake hands, give high-fives, play musical chairs, paint with their noses, play cards, play games on tablets, remain still and quiet during proceedings, provide support, and much more. 

Training for each dog is valued at about $50,000, but the HERO program received them for free from Canine Companions for Independence. The dogs’ skills can help engage victims, especially children who might not talk to officials otherwise.

She recalls one case where Willow was called in to assist with a young girl who wouldn’t even look at the prosecutor, much less talk with them.

Handlers pose with their service dogs, companion animals that serve in Alabama’s HERO program.

“When Willow and I got there, the girl turned around and started talking and playing with Willow,” Martin says. “Before we left, she went over her trial testimony, and she was fine with it. We got to see the complete turnaround from not even looking at the prosecutor to actually getting in the witness box and talking into the microphone. It was definitely a win for justice.”

The HERO program works with about 600 victims a year, and Martin says she’d love to see the program grow into areas where they don’t normally receive requests. Everyone from the victims to those in the justice system have appreciated having the furry companions during a difficult time.

“When we walk in there with the dog, they get excited,” Martin says. “The minute Willow or any of the dogs get involved, it’s completely different.”

For more information on the HERO program, visit Opsheroinfo.org.


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